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Making Decisions in Life: 10 ideas from “How Life Imitates chess” by Garry Kasparov

All your results in life are direct consequences of the decisions you have made. And the results you want in the future depend largely on the decisions you make today. When you have a goal and a strategy in place, you must learn to master the art of making decisions to make further progress in life.

This post is a continuation of my earlier post about creating life strategy. The ideas presented here are from the same book “How life Imitates chess” by Garry Kasparov. All the quotations below are taken from this book.

1.) Create and follow a method of making decisions.

“Doing things the right way matters, which is why maths teachers insist students show their working. In the basic algebra equation 5x = 20 we can after all solve x by plugging in possible answers one after another and eventually come up with the same solution as the person who simply divides 20 by 5”

Decision making is largely a process of critical thinking (apart from the simple decisions which can be made intuitively, we will come to that). Therefore it is important to have a method at hand which is useful in making most of your life decisions.

In chess one of the methods is the use of candidate move and a tree of analysis. A grandmaster would study the position, evaluate and understand the demands of a position, create a strategy and find 5 or 6 candidate moves which best fit to that strategy. Then there is analysis of each of them to find the best move. So, do you have a method to make important decisions in life? If not, then create one that suits you best.

Various trees of analysis in chess. The form is generated by the branches of possible variations in analysis. Taken from Kotov alexander “Play like a grandmaster.” Can you use something like this for decision making in life?

2.) Too much information is not always good.

“There can be an over-emphasis on the collection of data and its analysis. Smart people with good information can still come to incorrect conclusions thanks to poor procedures for working with that information. More isn’t always better when it comes to collecting data.”

The famous “Knowledge is power” is not always true. What you need is knowledge + the correct processing of that knowledge to make better decisions. I have seen many people so hungry for knowledge, but unable to reflect on their knowledge to make something meaningful out of it. Unless you can process the knowledge wonderfully, it will only confuse you more.

3.) Find a proper combination of breadth and depth.

“As always we are after balance between breadth and depth. Looking at five different options two moves deep is no better or worse than looking at only two options five moves deep, depending on the problem, the position at hand.”

In chess, selecting number of candidate moves depend on the demands of a position. When a lot of precision is required, such as in sharp and critical positions, you can select 2 candidate moves and go as much deep as possible. On the other hand, when looking for a new idea in a simple positions, you might look for more options in lesser depth.

4.) Intuition and decision making.

“We wouldn’t want to consider every decision we make, and so we rely on patterns gleaned from experience. These are essential shortcuts and have no drawbacks as long as they are confined to basic functions. The problems come when we begin to rely on patterns for more sophisticated decisions in our lives.”

Intuition is very important tool in making simple decisions. In chess, we cannot lose time in making decisions critically at every move. We have patterns developed through our experience which help us make the right moves in simple cases. But the critical positions cannot be solved by intuition. They require proper method and analysis.

To give a simple example, you don’t have to make a decision about which route to take to go to work. It is in your system now and helps you save mental effort. But you cannot make a decision about ‘what career to choose’ after graduation only based on intuition. It is this situation where a method and a discipline to follow it is essential.

5.) Look at your problems with fresh perspective

“If faced with a repetitive job it can be difficult to stay alert to opportunities to solve problems creatively. Your instincts slowly go numb when every analysis returns same answers over and over.”

In chess, we face similar positions many times. But the similar positions with even small differences can open up new and different ways of playing and gaining advantage.

When you have a job routine, almost all your days are similar. But it is important to find the little differences to keep our creativity alive. I sometimes tend to look at the quality of natural light, the sky, the sounds of the birds, and how they are different today than they were yesterday. It keeps the senses alive and alert to recognize new opportunities.

6.) The cumulative effect of an improved small decision.

“With the sheer quantity of decisions we make every day, even small improvements and adaptations in our processes make a huge cumulative difference. It’s like making a tiny enhancement in an assembly line that saves a few precious seconds off the production of each car.”

We make huge amounts of decision everyday. If we become aware of a small daily decision which is automated and improve upon it a little bit, we have formed a new habit which will give an added advantage for life.

For example, if you find that you are using your phone too much at night. You can decide not to use your phone for 1hr before going to bed. It will lead to much better quality of sleep and you will have a refreshing next day just by making this small change, which is not that difficult. All you are doing is becoming aware of an automatic decision and making a little improvement to make large effect in your life.

7.) Do not make a decision until you have to.

“Many bad decisions come from wanting to just get the process over and escape the pressure of having to make the decision. This is the worst type of haste, an unforced error. resist it.”

In chess we have saying that “a pawn cannot go backwards”. Every pawn move that we make leave behind a weakness in our position that is unrepairable. Therefore, we have to be extra careful in making such committal moves.

In life, we have to ask which decisions are committal, and irreversible. And make them only when they are absolutely required. It is always good to keep other options open as long as possible.

8.) Consider the exchange of material, time and quality.

In chess, we sometimes sacrifice a pawn or an exchange (swapping more value of our piece with less value of opponent’s piece) to gain a positional advantage. This positional advantage is sometimes a great compensation that you can also gain your sacrificed material back keeping a winning advantage.

In life also there are such tactics we can use. For example, if you are looking for more value and exposure, you can give away your quality content for free in order to create a strong position for yourself. This positional advantage will bring back all your sacrificed money, and also leave you with much better position than before. But such strategies have to be carefully thought and applied.

9.) Take your decisions seriously.

If you don’t take your own decisions seriously, no one else will. The decisions you make will form your life. Great players like Kasparov are respected ( and also feared) because they took chess very seriously. Each time at the board they wanted to win, and do their best. A half-hearted decision will not lead anywhere.

10.) Do not always go for the path which is known better.

When you are confused, you tend to go towards a path that you know better or in other words, more comfortable. It is like ” looking for the lost thing where the light is better, instead of where you lost it.” A comfortable path is not always the best.


These are the important points to remember:

  • Intuition is useful in making everyday decisions. It mostly works at unconscious level. However, sometimes we should become aware of these automatic decisions and look for an opportunity to improve them.
  • For more complex and sophisticated decisions, we should have a method in place which allows us to go through various options and analyze them as deeply as required.
  • All decisions should be based on the situation or a problem at hand. In life, every position is unique.We need to study the position carefully, ask how it is different from some similar situation we faced earlier and then decide what works best.
  • Do not make irreversible decisions unless you have to. It is always nice to be in a position where you have more ‘good alternatives’. Do not go for a ‘do or die’ situation unnecessarily.
  • Take your decisions seriously. Your decisions will direct your life. Give your best in making them!

Thank you for reading. Hope this post adds value to your life and helps you make better decisions in life. 🙂

If you liked this post, also go through the earlier post creating life strategy.

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